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Inside look: A sensor operator’s first weapons strike

Airman 1st Class Matthew, 15th Attack Squadron MQ-1 Predator sensor operator follows a moving target alongside an MQ-1 pilot during a training mission Dec. 5, 2016, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. Despite the remotely piloted aircraft stigma that operators don’t feel anything when conducting weapons strikes, Matthew explained he felt nervous, cold, and his heart raced during his first weapons strike in support of ground forces. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christian Clausen)

Airman 1st Class Matthew, a 15th Attack Squadron MQ-1 Predator sensor operator, follows a moving target alongside an MQ-1 pilot during a training mission Dec. 5, 2016, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. Despite the remotely piloted aircraft stigma that operators don’t feel anything when conducting weapons strikes, Matthew explained he felt nervous, cold, and his heart raced during his first weapons strike in support of ground forces. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christian Clausen)

Airman 1st Class Matthew, 15th Attack Squadron MQ-1 Predator sensor operator, destroys a simulated target during a training mission Dec. 5, 2016, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. Shortly after completing his extensive sensor operator training at age 20, Matthew successfully completed his first weapons strike. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christian Clausen)

Airman 1st Class Matthew, a 15th Attack Squadron MQ-1 Predator sensor operator, destroys a simulated target during a training mission Dec. 5, 2016, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. Shortly after completing his extensive sensor operator training at age 20, Matthew successfully completed his first weapons strike. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christian Clausen)

CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (AFNS) --

The feelings experienced during combat missions can be intense for many aircrew members. For Airman 1st Class Matthew, a 20-year-old 15th Attack Squadron MQ-1 Predator sensor operator, his first air strike was an event he will never forget. 

He became cold and his hands shook nervously as he moved the crosshairs over the target. Time dragged on inside the dark air-conditioned ground control station as he waited for the missile to explode on one of his many screens. 

Matthew recalls the experience, clearly, as the day he was suddenly thrown into his first weapons employment, a day he had been trained for, but didn’t expect so early in his career.

“We got the call from a joint terminal attack controller for a short-notice airstrike,” Matthew said. “We were tasked to hit moving vehicles. One was a motorcycle and the other was a vehicle-borne [improvised explosive device].” 

At his age, most individuals would be anxious about a job interview, college exam or a first date. Not Matthew. He was worried about supporting troops on the ground from an MQ-1 Predator, operating the Multi-Spectral Targeting System while tucked away in a ground control station in the Nevada desert.   

“Matthew had to follow the moving vehicles with a laser in order to guide the weapons while determining the escape velocity of the target,” said Master Sgt. Jesse, the 15th ATKS operations superintendent. “He would weaponeer the missile impact in order to neutralize the target and the cannon mounted in the truck.”

All of this had to be done while dealing with a one and a half second delay.

“I was really nervous and got cold all of a sudden,” Matthew said. “I didn’t want anything to go wrong or to disappoint the supporting unit or squadron. I wanted to prove myself and I had to rely on what I had been taught and practiced.”

Jesse said there are so many different variables to each weapons employment that, as sensor operators, there is a constant need to remember all of their training. Once the weapon is away, however, the entire shot comes down to the sensor operator to maintain the crosshairs and keep the weapon on target to achieve the ground commander's objective. 

The pressure was on. If he missed the target, the enemy would reach an area where coalition forces were bedded down for the night. 

Despite the pounding in his chest, Matthew’s training paid off and he successfully guided the weapons to the target, saving the ground forces and boosting his confidence sky high. 

“It was a great shot and he's had a couple more since then,” Jesse said. “It's awesome to see. I'm glad things went well as this is what we train so hard to do.”

Providing precision attack and dominant reconnaissance capabilities to the combatant commanders wasn’t what he thought he would be doing after high school.

“My brother was my recruiter and after looking at what I qualified for, sensor operator sounded the most exciting,” Matthew said. “I still wasn’t 100 percent sure what I’d be doing but I had no idea I’d be taking bad guys off the battlefield for a living.”

Matthew went on to say it’s unreal that he lives up to the military image of neutralizing enemies every day.

“This job is awesome, but stressful, yet very crucial to the military,” he said. “The information and strikes we provide are amazing. It’s those things most people don’t see or hear about that we do every day that keeps people safe.” 

While close-air support is a big part of the mission, there are other sensor operator opportunities such as raid support, intelligence gathering and combat search and rescue. After a long day of these and other mission sets, Jesse likes that he’s still able to see his family after his combat shift. “What other precision strike platform can say that,” he said.

“No other aircraft can stay aloft overhead as long as we can, let alone be as consistently precise with a (AGM-114) Hellfire,” Jesse said. “This weapons system has truly changed the way we fight wars.”

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